In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City to demand shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote.
In 1909, the Socialist Party of America declared the first National Women’s Day.
A year later, a woman called Clara Zetkin – a German Communist and women’s rights activist – attended an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, and suggested the idea of an international day for women.
It was first celebrated internationally in 1911, and in 1975 the United Nations recognised the day and began promoting it.
There is also an International Men’s Day, on November 19, but it is not recognised by the United Nations.
The United Nations theme of this year’s IWD is “innovation and technology for gender equality”, but long-time feminist and social activist Eva Cox thinks it’s all bunkum.
“It’s become a bit boring,” she says of the day.
“People don’t have a sense of excitement about what we are doing now. We are busy trying to fit women into male slots.”
Cox, who is 85, says that “big companies can have a morning tea and show they have promoted a few women, and look good”, but she believes we are worse off than we were 20 years ago.
“I have been trying to work out why I felt so flat on the eve of International Women’s Day,” she laments.
“There is nothing big or spontaneous happening.”
Helen McCabe is the managing director and founder of Future Women, a membership forum for professional women, owned by Nine (also the publisher of this masthead).
Future Women is running a two-day leadership conference to coincide with IWD, culminating in a 400-seat gala dinner at the Ivy in Sydney on Wednesday night.
The dinner will be given over to First Nations women to use as a platform.
A panel of Aboriginal women including playwright Nakkiah Lui, academic Amy Thunig and writer Larissa Behrendt will speak to guests.
McCabe expects the Voice to parliament will be a dominant theme.
She acknowledges the backlash against the cupcakes-and-girlboss version of IWD, borne of the same corporate feminism Sheryl Sandberg summoned when she urged women to “lean in” in her bestselling 2013 book.
“We certainly got a lot of that commentary at the start of our conference yesterday,” McCabe says.
“There’s something irritating about the cupcake concept. I understand why it frustrates so many women. It’s usually women ordering the cupcakes.”
McCabe says that if a company has been doing IWD events for a decade and yet “your execs are all still men and your gender pay gap is entrenched”, it is time to take meaningful action.
Professor Baird is planning an ocean swim to celebrate the day.
Asked how companies can best celebrate their female employees, she answers quickly: “A day off for all women”.
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